Sustainable development is a much-used term and is probably familiar to many within as well as outside academia, even more so in the more developed parts of the world. It is a term that can be seen in areas ranging from media explanations of global security issues to door-step recycling initiatives. Within the limits of human geography, it informs about research extending from social exclusion within luxurious cities to the outcomes of environmental transformations in rural Africa. Some consider that there is nothing as relevant as a discipline in geography to contribute to the sustainable development debates given its ability to combine the science of the environment perfectly with a sound understanding of positive political, economic and cultural change which, in other words, means development. The tracking of sustainable development is now a principal policy of institutions and organizations across all walks of life. The field of practical and academic enquiry around sustainable development is an expanding and diverse one. The World Commission on Environment and Development published a report in 1987 which is generally considered to have brought the term ‘sustainable development’ into popular discussions and consequently onto public agendas. This commission which was established by the United Nations comprises people drawn from countries of both the developed and developing worlds and was charged with the identification of the long-term environmental strategies for the world. They defined sustainable development as “development that meets the requirements of the present generation without compromising on the ability of future generations to meet their own requirements” which has become the most widely cited expression of the term: the fundamental notion that development as of today should not be at the expense of the future generation’s ability to do so has found widespread allegiance.
As the term sustainable development reaches more and more people, it becomes bound by ever-larger movements of the modern world. Practitioners and academics are increasingly becoming aware of the need to critically focus on the fundamental principles summed up within the term as it evolves. Additionally, close examination is required in the name of sustainable development as to what is trying to be achieved and how so, encompassing the multiple competing agendas being chased and interpreting changes within local and global contexts. In order to achieve that goal, this review provides substantial detail to the origin and subsequent development of the notion of sustainable development and how the complex intricacies of social, economic and environmental development processes and their outcomes are being revealed in the pursuit of sustainable development. The concept of sustainable development has also been seen in a bad light when it comes to its ‘slippery nature’ (sustainable development does not have one standard definition), its ambiguities (the large number of interpretations that can be inferred from those definitions), and its oxymoronic character (the opposition between two encapsulated reports).